By Steven J. Keith
When Tim Urbanic satisfied a lifelong hunger to open his own restaurant, he chose an abandoned building in the tiny Braxton County town of Sutton as the spot where he hoped his dreams would come true.
With a population of barely 900 and its fair share of boarded-up storefronts, you might ask yourself, "Why Sutton?"
For Tim and his wife, Melody, the question was "Why anyplace else?"
"For 10 years we kept driving to Sutton from our farm in Calhoun County because our daughter always wanted to be in the plays here," Melody explained. As an amateur chef, Tim would often find himself preparing meals for the 50 or 60 people who would come out for community theater gatherings.
"These weren't your typical church spaghetti dinners either," Melody added. "People would take one bite of Tim's food and just rave."
Tim soon built quite a following and began toying with the idea of opening his own place.
"People said we were crazy'" Melody said. "They told us 90 percent of all restaurants fail, and certainly a gourmet restaurant in Sutton would, too."
But one day, the two of them were standing in front of an old hardware store in the town, looking down Main Street and over at the beautiful historic courthouse.
"We suddenly realized we were standing right in the middle of our own Norman Rockwell print, " Melody said. "We thought, 'How can a restaurant NOT do well in this setting?'"
So the Urbanics tapped into their retirement savings and bought the place, an Italianate Revival structure built around 1900 on what is now the corner of Main and 4th streets. Then, they worked with the state's Office of Historic Places to restore the building as authentically as possible.
"They said with a beautiful building like this, doing less is more. We said, 'Well that's good, because we sure don't have a lot of money,' " Melody recalled with a laugh. "We walked into this place and saw the gorgeous tin ceiling overhead and beautiful American chestnut floors below. We knew all we needed was good food in the middle."
That was October of 1998. Just four months later, Cafe Cimino opened its doors.
Not only did the restaurant just celebrate its second year in business, but its success also has helped stir up a revival of sorts in this quaint little town.
"A lot has sprung up here because of the restaurant," Tim said during a rare break from his cooking duties. "Just as the kitchen is the center of the home, Cafe Cimino has become the center of town."
Some of those vacant storefronts down the street are now starting to show signs of life. The already established Landmark Studio for the Arts next door, housed in a restored Gothic Revival church, has grown into a bustling community playhouse drawing larger crowds of performers and guests. The restaurant itself has become a showplace for West Virginia artists to display their works, from paintings and photographs on the walls to pottery displayed on each table. And each Saturday evening, a local singer or musician is also on hand to entertain guests.
"The word is getting out," Melody said. "Sutton is becoming a real cultural center."
In addition to a blossoming arts community, one of the newest products of Cafe Cimino's success may be an exclusive new inn located just down the street on the banks of the Elk River.
Having moved to more than a dozen different places in the past 22 years, West Virginia natives Doug and Patricia Robinson have returned home to help build on Sutton's resurgence.
"We were sitting near the front window of the restaurant one night and realized Cafe Cimino had really started something magical in this town," Patricia said. "We wanted to be a part of it."
The Robinsons bought one of the town's stately mansions and have spent months transforming the circa 1902 Berry Estate and its surrounding grounds into a luxurious getaway. "Simplicity: The Haven Inn" features eight rooms and two suites, all with private baths, individually controlled heating and air conditioning, television, and private phone, as well as on-site meal service or packaged take-away lunches for tourists on the go. There's also an outdoor terrace, indoor pub, conference room, gift shop, and wine cellar, and 4,000 feet of riverbank and 11 miles of mapped trails on the inn's 183 acres.
Set to open this summer, the inn will offer guests what Patricia describes as an "elegant, service-oriented getaway in comfortable surroundings."
And guess who is helping coordinate the inn's food service?
"Tim is going to be my guide," Patricia said of Cafe Cimino's chef. "He's going to be right out in my dining room telling me what we're doing well and what still needs work."
The inn will actually team up with Cafe Cimino and Landmark Studios to offer dinner, theater, and lodging packages for visitors.
"We're calling it the Golden Triangle," Melody said of the three businesses working together. "You can stay at the inn, stroll down the street to the restaurant for dinner, walk next door and see a show, then come back over to the restaurant for dessert and coffee before being chauffeured back to the inn.
"People have really been hungry for something like this for a long time," she said. "We're excited about the possibilities."
But the heart of this town is still a charming little restaurant that stands as an oasis in an area not traditionally known for its gourmet dining.
"We've become the kitchen of Central West Virginia," Melody said. She noted that 400 or so "regulars" from Braxton and neighboring counties consider Cafe Cimino their special gathering spot. If you can count on that many customers to stop by often and turn to the restaurant for birthdays, family dinners, and other special occasions, it's no wonder the place is a success.
Melody greets you with a smile before showing you to one of a few dozen linen-topped tables casually situated around the open dining area. A soft glow welcomes guests as they sit down and begin to look over their menus. You're in love with the place already and you haven't even tried the food yet.
Ah, the food!
The restaurant takes its name from Tim's grandparents, Italian immigrants who taught him how to cook and helped him develop an appreciation for using only the finest ingredients in his creations. He uses organically grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs from his own family farm in Chloe, West Virginia, whenever possible.
Everything on the menu, down to the sauce that graces your pasta, is made fresh when you place y